“Guests of the Jewish race,” read the “welcoming” card at the Hotel Reichshof in Hamburg sometime in early 1939, “are requested not to lounge in the lobby. Breakfast will be served in the rooms and the other meals in the blue room next to the breakfast hall on the mezzanine. The Management.” These words were addressed to lucky emigrants still managing to flee the Reich through its major northern harbor. On the back of the card was an advertisement for the travel agency located in the hotel lobby, where “you may obtain boat tickets.” The advertisement carried the slogan: “Travel is pleasant on the ships of the Hamburg-Amerika Line.”1
Through a process of interpretation and innovation, party, state, and society gradually filled in the remaining blanks of the ever harsher code regulating all relations with Jews. What party agencies and the state bureaucracy left open was dealt with by the courts, and what the courts did not rule on remained for Volksgenossen (such as the Reichshof managers) to figure out.
Sometimes court decisions may have appeared improbable or even paradoxical, but only at first glance. More closely considered, they expressed the essence of the system. Thus, on June 30, 1939, a Frankfurt district court ordered a language- school director to refund advance payments received from a Jew for English lessons not provided in full; the court then followed by ruling that a German woman had to pay (in monthly installments, with interest) for goods she had bought and not paid for when her husband, a party member, insisted on immediate cessation of the transaction on discovery of the seller’s Jewish identity. In both cases the German defendants also had to bear the court costs.2
There was a slight twist, however, to this unexpected show of justice. The rulings most probably resulted from instructions regarding the legal status of Jews issued by the Ministry of Justice on June 23, 1939, to all presidents of regional higher courts; the guidelines had been agreed upon by the ministers concerned at the beginning of the year and had already been communicated orally at the end of January. Thus the courts were well aware of their “duty.”
The opening paragraph of the memorandum conveyed the gist of the ministry’s position: “The exclusion of the Jews from the German economy must be completed according to plan and in stages on the basis of the existing regulations…. Businesses and other properties in the possession of Jews, which would allow for economic influence, will become German property in accordance with the prescribed ways.” There is no possible mistake about the goals here defined. At this point, though, the bureaucracy sets the “limits,” requiring that, beyond the aforesaid measures, the Jews (whether plaintiffs or defendants) be treated by the courts according to all accepted legal norms in any financial litigation: “Intervention in the economic situation of the Jews by the use of measures devoid of any explicit legal basis should be avoided. Therefore, the Jews should be able to turn to the courts with claims stemming from their [economic] activity and to have the rulings enforced when cases are decided in their favor.” The ministry did not conceal the reason for this sudden legal concern: “It is undesirable, on public welfare grounds alone, to let the Jews become totally impoverished.” In a prior paragraph this rather crass reasoning had been preempted by a declaration of high principles: “The enforcement [of rulings]…is not only a matter for the parties involved but also serves…as an expression of the authority of the state.” Even judges who were party members could not avoid the application of the law to Jews, because in their function as judges they were also part of an administrative organ.3
This text represents a classic example of Nazi thinking. There is an absolute cleavage between the apparent significance of the text and the reality to which it alludes. The apparent significance here was that the Jews were entitled to their share of justice so that they would not become a burden on the state and because the enforcement of justice was the ultimate expression of state authority. But this declaration came after the Jews had been dispossessed of all their rights and of all possibilities of material subsistence by the very state authorities that were ordering that justice be enforced.
Up to that point, there had been a measure of consonance between the significance of decrees, as brutal as they were, and the facts they dealt with, as calamitous as they were. The laws of exclusion were explicit and led to the dismissal of the Jews from public office and official life; the segregation edicts led to complete separation between Germans and Jews; the expropriation decrees dealt with the destruction of the concrete economic situation of the Jews in Germany. But the edict of June 1939 was calling for a measure of justice in a situation in which day in, day out, the Nazi authority that was demanding such justice was imposing ever harsher injustices, a situation in which court decisions on individual claims had become irrelevant in practice, given the public burden (the impoverishment of the Jews) the same authority had itself already created.
Although the instructions given to the courts in January (and June) 1939 were unknown to the litigants, they introduced a new dimension within the administration itself: the double language that increasingly characterized all measures taken against the Jews—the internal camouflage that was to contribute to the success of the “Final Solution.” And, whereas concrete measures were increasingly disguised by a new form of language and concepts, open statements, particularly the utterances of the leadership and of the Nazi press, attained unequaled degrees of violence. Hitler threatened extermination; the Ministry of Justice enjoined abiding by the rules.
As in every year since 1933, the Reichstag was convened in festive session on January 30, 1939, to mark the anniversary of Hitler’s accession to power. Hitlers speech started at 8:15 in the evening and lasted for more than two and a half hours. The first part of the speech dealt with the history of the Nazi movement and the development of the Reich. Hitler then castigated some of the main British critics of appeasement, whom he accused of calling for a war against Germany. Since the Munich agreement Hitler had already twice lashed out in public against his English enemies, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Alfred Duff Cooper, and on one occasion at least, in his speech of October 9, he had explicitly mentioned the Jewish wire pullers he perceived behind the anti-German incitement.4 The same rhetoric unfurled on January 30. Behind the British opponents of Munich, the Führer pointed to “the Jewish and non-Jewish instigators” of that campaign. He promised that when National Socialist propaganda went on the offensive, it would be as successful as it had been within Germany, where “we knocked down the Jewish world enemy…with the compelling strength of our propaganda.”5
After referring to the American intervention against Germany during World War I, which, according to him, had been determined by purely capitalistic motives, Hitler—probably infuriated by the American reactions to the November pogrom and to other Nazi measures against the Jews—thundered that nobody would be able to influence Germany in its solution of the Jewish problem. He sarcastically pointed to the pity expressed for the Jews by the democracies, but also to the refusal of these same democracies to help and to their unwillingness to take in the Jews to whom they were so sympathetic. Hitler then abruptly turned to the principle of absolute national sovereignty: “France to the French, England to the English, America to the Americans, and Germany to the Germans.” This allowed for a renewed anti-Jewish tirade: The Jews had attempted to control all dominant positions within Germany, particularly in culture. In foreign countries there was criticism of the harsh treatment of such highly cultured people. Why then weren’t the others grateful for the gift Germany was giving to the world? Why didn’t they take in these “magnificent people”?
From sarcasm Hitler moved to threat: “I believe that this [Jewish] problem will be solved—and the sooner the better. Europe cannot find peace before the Jewish question is out of the way…. The world has enough space for settlement, but one must once and for all put an end to the idea that the Jewish people have been chosen by the good Lord to exploit a certain percentage of the body and the productive work of other nations. Jewry will have to adapt itself to productive work like any other nation or it will sooner or later succumb to a crisis of unimaginable dimensions.” Up to that point, Hitler was merely rehashing an array of anti-Jewish themes that had become a known part of his repertory. Then, however, his tone changed, and threats as yet unheard in the public pronouncements of a head of state resonated in the Reichstag: “One thing I would like to express on this day, which is perhaps memorable not only for us Germans: In my life I have often been a prophet, and I have mostly been laughed at. At the time of my struggle for power, it was mostly the Jewish people who laughed at the prophecy that one day I would attain in Germany the leadership of the state and therewith of the entire nation, and that among other problems I would also solve the Jewish one. I think that the uproarious laughter of that time has in the meantime remained stuck in German Jewry’s throat.” Then came the explicit menace: “Today I want to be a prophet again: If international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe again succeeds in precipitating the nations into a world war, the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and with it the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”6
Over the preceding weeks and months Hitler had mentioned any number of possibilities regarding the ultimate fate of the German (and more often than not, of the European) Jews. On September 20, 1938, he had told the Polish ambassador to Berlin, Jósef Lipski, that he was considering sending the Jews to some colony in cooperation with Poland and Romania. The same idea, specifying Madagascar, had come up in the Bonnet-Ribbentrop talks and, earlier, in Göring’s addresses of November 12 and December 6. (The Generalfeldmarschall had explicitly referred to Hitler’s ideas on this issue.) To South African Defense Minister Oswald Pirow, Hitler declared on November 24, 1938, that “some day, the Jews will disappear from Europe.” On January 5, 1939, Hitler stated to Polish Foreign Minister Beck that had the Western democracies had a better understanding of his colonial aims, he would have allocated an African territory for the settlement of the Jews; in any case, he made it clear once more that he was in favor of sending the Jews to some distant country. Finally, on January 21, a few days before his speech, Hider told Czech Foreign Minister Franti$$$ek Chvalkovsky that the Jews of Germany would be “annihilated,” which in the context of his declaration seemed to mean their disappearance as a community; he added again that the Jews should be shipped off to some distant place. A more ominous tone appeared in this conversation when Hider mentioned to Chvalkovsky that if the Anglo-Saxon countries did not cooperate in shipping out and taking care of the Jews, they would have their deaths on their consciences.7 If Hitler was mainly thinking in terms of deporting the Jews from Europe to some distant colony, which at this stage was clearly a completely vague plan, then the threats of extermination uttered in the January 30 speech at first appear unrelated. But the background needs to be considered once more.
On the face of it, Hitler’s speech seems to have had a twofold context. First, as already mentioned, British opposition to the appeasement policy, and the strong American reactions to Kristallnacht, would have sufficed to explain his multiple references to Jewish-capitalist warmongering. Second, it is highly probable that in view of his project of dismembering what remained of Czecho-Slovakia, and of the demands he was now making on Poland, Hitler was aware of the possibility that the new international crisis could lead to war (he had mentioned this possibility in a speech given a few weeks before, in Saarbrücken).8 Thus Hitler’s threats of extermination, accompanied by the argument that his past record proved that his prophecies were not to be made light of, may have been aimed in general terms at weakening anti-Nazi reactions at a time when he was preparing for his most risky military-diplomatic gamble. More precisely the leader of Germany may have expected that these murderous threats would impress the Jews active in European and American public life sufficiently to reduce what he considered to be their warmongering propaganda.
The relevance of Hitler’s speech to the immediate international context appears to be confirmed by a Wilhelmstrasse memorandum sent on January 25, 1939, to all German diplomatic missions, regarding “the Jewish question as a factor of foreign policy during the year 1938.” The memorandum linked the realization of “the great German idea,” which had occurred in 1938 (the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland), with steps for the implementation of a solution of the Jewish question. The Jews were the main obstacles to the German revival; the rise of German strength was therefore necessarily linked to the elimination of the Jewish danger from the German national community. The memorandum, which reaffirmed Jewish emigration as the goal of German policy, identified the United States as the headquarters of Jewish international action and President Roosevelt, notoriously surrounded by Jews, as the force attempting to organize international pressure on Germany both in general political terms and also in order to ensure that Jewish emigrants from Germany could benefit from the full recovery of Jewish assets.9 Thus it seems that for the Wilhelmstrasse and for Hitler, the Western democracies and the United States in particular were temporarily taking the place of Bolshevik Russia as the seat of international Jewish power and therefore of militant hostility to the rise of German power.
It was precisely because Hitler believed in Jewish influence in the capitalist world that, in its immediate context, his speech may be considered as yet another exercise in blackmail. The Jews of Germany (and of Europe) were to be held hostage in case their warmongering brethren and assorted governments were to instigate a general war. This idea, which had been aired by Das Schwarze Korps on October 27, 1938, in an article entitled “An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth,” was circulating in Germany during these very months. On November 3 Das Schwarze Korps returned to the same theme: “If the Jews declare war on us—as they have already done [in the past]—we will treat the Jews who live among us as the citizens of a belligerent state…. The Jews of Germany are part of world Jewry, and they partake in the responsibility for everything that world Jewry initiates against Germany, as they are a guarantee against the harm that world Jewry causes to us and still wants to inflict upon us.”10 The idea of holding the Jews hostage did not necessarily contradict the urgent desire to expel them from Germany. As has been seen, Hitler himself evoked this idea in his conversation with Goebbels on July 24, 1938. In his December 6 address to the Gauleiters, Göring returned to it as part of his emigration plan. Moreover, during the negotiations between Schacht and Rublee, which will be discussed below, the plan submitted by the Reichsbank president foresaw the departure of 150,000 Jews with their dependents over the following three years, whereas some 200,000 Jews, mainly the elderly, would stay behind in order to ensure international Jewry’s positive behavior toward the Reich.
It would be a mistake, however, to consider Hitler’s January 30 speech merely in its short-term, tactical context. The wider vistas may have been part calculated pressure, part uncontrolled fury, but they may well have reflected a process consistent with his other projects regarding the Jews, such as their transfer to some remote African territory. This was, in fact, tantamount to a search for radical solutions, a scanning of extreme possibilities. Perceived in such a framework, the prophecy about extermination becomes one possibility among others, neither more nor less real than others. And—like the hostage idea—the possibility of annihilation was in the air.
Himmler’s speech of November 8, 1938, and its implicit corollaries have already been mentioned. A few weeks later, in an article published on November 24, Das Schwarze Korps was far more explicit. After announcing the need for the total segregation of the Jews of Germany in special areas and special houses, the SS periodical went one step further: The Jews could not continue in the long run to live in Germany: “This stage of development [of the situation of the Jews] will impose on us the vital necessity to exterminate this Jewish sub-humanity, as we exterminate all criminals in our ordered country: by the fire and the sword! The outcome will be the final catastrophe for Jewry in Germany, its total annihilation.”11
It is not known if it was this article in Das Schwarze Korps that incited the American consul general in Berlin, Raymond Geist, to write in early December that the Nazi objective was the “annihilation” of the Jews,12 or whether foreign observers sensed, at the inner core of the regime, the utter hatred that a few weeks later found its expression in Hitler’s speech. Significantly, a few days before the Reichstag declaration, Heydrich, in an address to high-ranking SS officers, defined the Jews as “subhuman” and pointed to the historical mistake of expelling them from one country to another, a method that did not solve the problem. The alternative, although not expressed, was not entirely mysterious, and after the speech, Himmler entered a rather cryptic remark in his notes: “inner martial spirit.”13
How far the reality of the Jews as a “threatening world power” had been internalized at all levels of the Nazi apparatus is possibly best illustrated by a text entitled “International Jewry,” prepared by Hagen for Albert Six, the head of II 1. In its final version it was forwarded to Six on January 19, 1939, for a lecture at Oldenburg (probably at a meeting of the higher SS leadership) on the Jewish question.14
The opening paragraph of Hagen’s memorandum was unequivocal: The Jewish question was “the problem, at the moment, of world politics.” After showing that the Western democracies (including the United States) had no intention of solving the “Jewish problem” because the Jews themselves had no intention of leaving the countries of which they had taken hold, and were planning to use Palestine only as some sort of “Jewish Vatican,” the text described the links between Jewish organizations in various countries and the channels through which they were exercising a determining influence on the politics and the economies of their host countries. Hagen’s production bristled with the names of personalities and groups whose visible and invisible ties were uncovered in a mighty crescendo: “All the organizational and personal ties of Jewry, established from country to country, come together in the summit organizations of the Jewish International.” These summit organizations were the World Jewish Congress, the World Zionist Organization—and B’nai B’rith. The mastermind at the center of it all was Chaim Weizmann, whose collected essays and speeches, published in Tel Aviv in 1937, were repeatedly quoted. Hagen’s memorandum was no mere exercise in cynicism. “The Jewish ‘experts’ of the SD believed in their constructs…[for them,] anti-Semitism, which they pretended was matter of fact, scientific, and rational, was the basis of their action.”15
Himmler, Heydrich, and Das Schwarze Korps illustrate the constant dichotomy of Nazi thinking regarding the Jews during the last months of peace: On the one hand, emigration by all means was the concrete aim and the concrete policy, but there was also the realization that, given its world-threatening nature, the Jewish problem could not be solved by mere practicalities, that something infinitely more radical was necessary. This was the gist of Hitler’s “prophecy,” even if tactically his threats were aimed at intimidating the British and American “warmongers.” One way or another, through every available channel, the regime was convincing itself and was conveying the message that the Jews, as helpless as they may have looked on the streets of Germany, were a demonic power striving for Germany’s perdition. On January 11 and 13 it was Walter Frank’s turn to have his say, in a two-part radio broadcast entitled “German Science in Its Struggle Against World Jewry.” After emphasizing that scientific research on the Jewish question could not be pursued in isolation but had to be integrated into the totality of national and world history, Frank plunged into deeper waters: “Jewry is one of the great negative principles of world history and thus can only be understood as a parasite within the opposing positive principle. As little as Judas Iscariot with his thirty silver coins and the rope with which he ultimately hanged himself can be understood without the Lord whose community he betrayed with a sneer, but whose face haunted him to his last hour—that night side of history called Jewry cannot be understood without being positioned within the totality of the historical process, in which God and Satan, Creation and Destruction confront each other in an eternal struggle.”16
Thus, alongside and beyond obvious tactical objectives, some other thoughts were emerging on the eve of the war. No program of extermination had been worked out, no clear intentions could be identified. A bottomless hatred and an inextinguishable thirst for a range of ever-harsher measures against the Jews were always very close to the surface in the minds of Hitler and of his acolytes. As both he and they knew that a general war was not excluded, a series of radical threats against the Jews were increasingly integrated into the vision of a redemptive final battle for the salvation of Aryan humanity.
Throughout the weeks during which Hitler was hinting, in his conversations with foreign dignitaries, at the dire fate in store for the Jews and publicly threatening them with extermination, he was kept informed of the negotiations taking place between German representatives and the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees set up at Evian to formulate an overall plan for the emigration of the Jews from Germany. The negotiations were in line with the general instructions given by Göring on November 12 and December 6, 1938. Although Hitler was fully cognizant of the progress of the discussions, it was Göring who was in charge of the actual steps.17
At an early stage, in November 1938, Ribbentrop had tried to play a part in these negotiations, which he had at first entirely opposed, issuing orders to Hans Fischböck, the former Austrian Nazi minister of the economy, to initiate contacts with the Intergovernmental Committee. The Ribbentrop-Fischböck intermezzo did not last long, and in December, Schacht, by now president of the Reichsbank, took over the negotiations with Rublee, first in London and then in Berlin. On January 16, 1939, in a conversation with the Hungarian foreign minister, Count Csáky, Hitler mentioned the possibility of solving the Jewish emigration issue byway of a financial plan.
Schacht was dismissed by Hitler from his position as president of the Reichsbank on January 20, 1939—for reasons entirely unrelated to the negotiations with Rublee (mainly in response to a memorandum warning Hitler of the financial difficulties resulting from the pace of military expenditures); Rublee, a political appointee, had resigned in mid-February 1939, in order to return to private law practice. The contacts continued nonetheless: Helmut Wohlthat, one of the highest officials of the Four-Year Plan administration, took over on the German side, and the British diplomat Sir Herbert Emerson henceforth represented the Intergovernmental Committee. An agreement in principle between Wohlthat and Rublee had been achieved on February 2. As has been seen, it envisaged that some 200,000 Jews over the age of forty-five would be allowed to stay in the Greater German Reich, whereas some 125,000 Jews belonging to the younger male population would emigrate, with their dependents. (The numbers varied slightly from one proposal to another.) The emigration process was to be spread over a period of three to five years, with its financing to be ensured by an international loan mainly taken out by Jews all over the world and secured by the assets still belonging to the Jews of Germany (approximately six billion RM, less the billion-mark fine imposed after the pogrom). As in the Haavarah Agreement, the Germans made sure that various arrangements included in the plan would enhance the export of German goods and thus ensure a steady flow of foreign currency into the Reich. The agreement was nothing less than Germany’s use of hostages in order to extort financial advantages in return for their release.
The concrete significance of the agreement depended on the successful floating of the loan and, in particular, on the designation of the countries or areas to which the Jews leaving Germany were to emigrate. Each of the Western powers involved had its preferred territorial solution, usually involving some other country’s colony or semicolony: Angola, Abyssinia, Haiti, the Guianas (now Guyana, French Guiana, and Surinam), Madagascar, and so on. In each case some obstacle arose or, more precisely, was raised as a pretext; even on paper no refuge zone was agreed upon before the outbreak of the war put an end to all such pseudo-planning.
Thus by means of pressure, threats, and grand schemes Hitler may have imagined that “the Jews of the world” would become pawns in his plans for aggression, because the Jews of Germany were now hostages in his hands.
On November 7, 1938, while the German Foreign Ministry was still refusing to have any contact with the Intergovernmental Committee and its representative, George Rublee, State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker received the British chargé d’affaires, Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes, to discuss the issue. “As Ogilvie-Forbes indicated that he personally knew Rublee well from Mexico,” Weizsäcker wrote in a memorandum to Undersecretary Ernst Woermann, the chief of the political division, “I asked him to what percentage was Rublee an Aryan. Ogilvie-Forbes believes that Rublee does not have any Jewish blood.”18 Three days later Woermann himself inquired about Rublee’s racial origins, this time of an American diplomat; the answer was the same: Rublee was unquestionably an Aryan. When, on November 15, the American ambassador, Hugh Wilson, came to take leave of Ribbentrop, the foreign minister felt the need to ask once more: Wilson had to state emphatically that Rublee was of French Huguenot origin and that not a drop of Jewish blood flowed in his veins.19
According to the German census of May 1939 and to various computations made since the war, 213,000 full Jews were living in the Altreich at the time of the census.20 By the end of 1939, the number had been reduced to 190,000.21 Strangely enough, a June 15, 1939, SD report indicated that at the end of December 1938, 320,000 full Jews were still living in the Altreich.22 There is no explanation for the inflated numbers produced by the SD (the numbers do not tally with what is known even if accelerated emigration during 1939 is taken into account). Whatever the reasons for these discrepancies, the demographic data provided by the Jewish Section of the SD are nonetheless significant. Only 16 percent of the Jewish population (on December 31, 1938) were under age twenty; 25.93 percent were between twenty and forty-five, and 57.97 percent over forty-five.23 These indications correspond to other known estimates: The Jewish population in Germany was rapidly becoming a community of elderly people. And it was also becoming hopelessly impoverished. Whereas in 1933, for example, there had been more than 6,000 “Jewish” small businesses in Berlin, by April 1, 1938, their number had been reduced to 3,105. By the end of that year, 2,570 had been liquidated and 535 been “sold” to Aryans.24 More than two centuries of Jewish economic activity in the Prussian and German capital had come to an end.
The daily situation of these Jews was described in a memorandum sent in February 1939 by Georg Landauer, director of the Central Bureau for the Settlement of German Jews in Palestine, to his Jerusalem colleague Arthur Ruppin: “Only the employees of Jewish organizations,” wrote Landauer, “and some people who rent rooms or cater meals are still earning something…. In West Berlin [a Jew] can get a coffee only in the waiting room of the Zoo [Railroad] Station and a meal in a Chinese or some other foreign restaurant. As the Jews’ leases are constantly being rescinded in buildings inhabited by a ‘mixed population,’ they increasingly move in with each other and brood over their fate. Many of them have not yet recovered from the 10th of November and are still fleeing from place to place in Germany or hiding in their apartments. Travel agencies, mainly in Paris, get in touch with consulates that can be bribed—this is mainly true of Central and South American republics—and purchase visas to foreign countries for high prices and enormous commissions. It has often happened that, having suddenly granted several hundred visas, consuls pocketed the money and were then dismissed by their governments. After that, the chances of Jews to enter the countries concerned disappear for a long time. Early in the morning, Jews appear at travel agencies and stand in long lines waiting to ask what visas one can obtain that day.”25
Landauer’s description found an uncanny echo in an SD report two months later: “The defense measures taken by the Party and the state, which follow each other in quick succession, no longer allow the Jews to catch their breath; a real hysteria has set in among both Jewish women and men. Their mood of helplessness is possibly best expressed by the words of a Ludwigsburg Jewess, who declared ‘that if she didn’t have children, she would long ago have committed suicide.’”26
For some time the Nazis had been aware that, in order to expedite the emigration of the Jews, they had to hold them in an even tighter organizational grip than before, and that they themselves also needed to set up a centralized emigration agency on the Viennese model, so as to coordinate all the emigration measures in the Reich.
The establishment of the new body that henceforth was to represent the Jews in Germany was initiated in the summer of 1938. By the beginning of 1939, its shape and function were clear. According to a February memorandum from the Düsseldorf Gestapo, “the Jewish organizations must be associated with all measures taken to prepare for the emigration of the Jews. To further that aim, it is necessary to bring together in one single organization for the whole Reich the means dispersed among the various organizations. The Reichsvertretung has therefore been given the task of building a so-called Reichvereinigung [Reich Association of the Jews in Germany] and of ensuring that all existing Jewish organizations disappear and put all their installations at the disposal of the Reichsvereinigung.”27
The Reichsvereinigung was finally established on July 4, 1939, by the tenth supplementary decree to the Reich Citizenship Law. Its main function was clearly defined in Article 2: “The purpose of the Reichsvereinigung is to further the emigration of the Jews.”28But despite the Nazis’ clear priorities, the bulk of the decree dealt with the other functions, such as education, health, and especially welfare: “The Reichsvereinigung is also the independent Jewish welfare system.” And the minister of the interior was entitled to add further responsibilities to the new organization.29 Thus the structure of the decree clearly conveyed the impression that the Nazis themselves did not believe in the success of the emigration drive. For all practical purposes, the Reichsvereinigung was becoming the first of the Jewish Councils, the Nazi-controlled Jewish organizations that, in most parts of occupied Europe, were to carry out the orders of their German masters regarding life and death in their respective communities.
A few months earlier, on January 24, Göring informed the minister of the interior that a Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Reichszentrale fur Jüdische Auswanderung) was being set up within the framework of the ministry, but as Heydrich’s sole responsibility: “The Reich Central Office will have the task of devising uniform policies as follows: (1) measures for the preparation of increased emigration of Jews; (2) the channeling of emigration, including, for instance, preference for emigration of the poorer Jews…; (3) the speeding up of emigration in individual cases.”30 Heydrich appointed the head of the Gestapo, SS-Standartenführer Heinrich Müller, chief of the new Reich Central Office.
On October 30, 1938, the local party leader in Altzenau (Franconia) wrote to the district party office in Aschaffenburg that two houses belonging to different members of a Jewish family named Hamburger were being acquired by party members, each for half its market value of 16,000 RM. The local party section requested the right to acquire one of these two houses. The authorization was granted in June 1939 and the price established by the party district office at 6,000 RM, slightly more than a third of the real value. In December 1938 the same Altzenau party chief informed his district leader that Jews who—as of January 1, 1939—would no longer be allowed to engage in business, were selling off their goods at rock-bottom prices. The local population was asking whether it could buy the Jewish merchandise, the ban on commerce with Jews notwithstanding.31
The Jews of Germany who had not managed to flee were increasingly dependent on public welfare. As noted in the previous chapter, from November 19, 1938, on, Jews were excluded from the general welfare system: They had to apply to special offices, and they were subjected to different and far more stringent assessment criteria than the general population. The German welfare authorities attempted to shift the burden onto the Jewish welfare services, but there too the available means were overstrained by the increasing need. The solution to the problem soon became evident, and on December 20, 1938, the Reich Labor Exchange and Unemployment Insurance issued a decree ordering all unemployed Jews who were fit for work to register for compulsory labor. “It was obvious that only carefully chosen hard and difficult work was to be assigned to the Jews. Building sites, road and motorway work, rubbish disposal, public toilets and sewage plants, quarries and gravel pits, coal merchants and rag and bone works were regarded as suitable.”32 But from a Nazi point of view, the decree created a series of new problems.
For instance, some of the tasks alloted to the Jews had a special national significance or were linked to the name of the Führer, an unacceptable outrage for some party members. “The assignment of Jews to work on the Reichsautobahnen [Reich freeways], the inspector-general of German roads wrote to the Reich Labor Minister on June 22, 1939, “cannot in my opinion be in accord with the prestige given to the Reichsautobahnen as Roads of the Führer.” The general inspector suggested that Jews be used only in work indirectly related to the construction or repair of the motorways, such as in stone quarries and the like.33
The December 1938 decree had imposed strict segregation on Jewish workers: They had to be kept “separated from the community.”34 But in many cases, mostly on farms, contact was unavoidable. The reactions from party activists were foreseeable. On April 13, 1939, a party district leader in Baden wrote to a local labor exchange: “Peasants who are still employing Jews are those who know the Jews very well, who did business with them and possibly still owe them money. An honest German peasant with but a minimum of National Socialist consciousness would never take a Jew into his house. If, on top of that, Jews were allowed to stay overnight, our race laws would be worthless.”35
Even more serious concern was expressed in a letter from a party district leader in Mannheim to the director of the Labor Exchange in that city. The subject was the employment of “the Jew Doiny” by a local bakery. The district leader was unable to understand how a Jew could be employed in food-related business. Should the Volksgenossen patronize a bakery in which bread is baked by a Jew?36 At times such dangerous contacts could be eliminated in a summary fashion. On August 29, 1939, the district governor of Hildesheim could inform all of the area’s heads of administrative regions and mayors of rather momentous news: “In the district of Hildesheim, all business activity of Jewish barbers and Jewish undertakers is terminated.”37
In the meantime, throughout the prewar months of 1939, the concentration of Jews in Jewish-owned dwellings continued; it was made easier, as has been noted, by the April 30, 1939, decree allowing rescinding of leases with Jews. In Berlin the entire operation was spurred by Speer’s agency, and the municipal authorities, supported by the party, started pressuring Aryan landlords to put an end to their contracts with Jewish tenants. Pressure was indeed necessary, according to an official report, “since for political reasons, the Jews were the quietest and the most unassuming tenants” and did not “cause any trouble” to their landlords.38 Once the transfers had taken place, it became clear that the areas cleared of Jews coincided exactly with the those designated by Speer’s offices to be “Jew free.”39
At some stage the Propaganda Ministry discovered that 1,800 window openings belonging to Jewish inhabitants would face the planned huge avenue called the East-West Axis. As that could be dangerous, Hitler was to be asked what appropriate measures should be taken.40
Even the most brutal systems sometimes make exceptions among their designated victims. In Nazi Germany such exceptions never applied to “full” Jews but only to some Mischlinge who were deemed unusually useful (Milch, Warburg, Chaoul) or especially well connected (Albrecht Haushofer). But in the rarest of cases, exceptions could also apply to Mischlinge of the first degree who were so insignificant and so persistent that both state and party bureaucracies were finally worn down. This was to be the unlikely conclusion of the story of Karl Berthold, the Chemnitz civil servant whose struggle to keep his job has been followed in these pages since its beginning, in 1933.
In her January 23, 1936, letter to the Reich minister of labor, Ada Berthold, Karl Berthold’s wife, had expressed only desperation: her husband’s three-year struggle had left both of them devastated in health and spirit. For Ada Berthold, there was now only one hope: A meeting with Hitler.41 The appointment was not granted, and, at that very same time, Berthold was ordered by the Ministry of the Interior’s Reich Office for Kinship Research to undergo a racial examination at the Institute for Racial Science and Ethnology at the University of Leipzig.42 Meanwhile the Office for Kinship Research had found the presumed Jewish father in Amsterdam; but the man denied being Karl Berthold’s father. The racial examination, however, was not in the subject’s favor: “A number of indices point to a Jewish begetter.”43 In November 1938 the verdict came down: Berthold must be dismissed from his job. It was then that he played his last card: a personal petition to Hitler. In it Berthold very clearly summed up his situation: “Since April 1924, I have been a permanent employee of the Social Benefits Office in Chemnitz, where, for almost five years now [actually more than five], a procedure for my dismissal has been pending because of my inability to prove my Aryan descent. Since then, there has been a search for my father (he is totally unknown to me, as I was an illegitimate child). No paternity was ever recognized in court. It is only because of the circumstance that my deceased mother mentioned a Jewish name that this matter has become fateful to me, without any objective proof. In consequence of the fact that, as already mentioned, the begetter could never be identified, I was ordered to undergo an examination at the Racial Science Institute in Leipzig, with which I complied. Then, it was supposedly ascertained that I showed Jewish characteristics. On the basis of this attestation of origins of May 23, 1938, the Minister of Labor has ordered my dismissal from the Social Benefits Office in Chemnitz.”
After describing the tragic consequences of this situation for himself and his family, Berthold continued: “I feel myself to be a true German, with a true German heart, who has never seen or heard anything of Jews and who has no desire ever to know them.” He listed the events of German nineteenth-century history in which his maternal ancestors had taken part and all the national duties he and his mother had fulfilled in the war. He had been a party member since March 1933 and had “foolishly” resigned his membership in 1936 because of the ongoing investigation. Of his three sons, the youngest was a member of the Jungvolk, the next oldest a Hitler Youth, and the oldest in his third year of military service.
“Such are my circumstances,” Berthold added. “They certainly are to be considered as normal, and it can be derived from them that I have nothing to do in any way with the Jewish rabble.”44
Berthold’s petition was forwarded by Hitler’s Chancellery to that of Deputy Führer Hess. In February 1939 it appeared that the answer would be negative. However, on August 16, 1939, a letter from the Deputy Führer to the labor minister “concerning the continuing employment of a Jewish Mischling in public service” announced the verdict: Karl Berthold was to be allowed to keep his position as an employee of the Chemnitz Social Benefits Office.45
Karl Berthold’s story throughout the first six years of the regime shows in microcosm how a modern bureaucracy could be the efficient purveyor of exclusion and persecution and, at the same time, could be slowed down by an individual’s use of the system’s loopholes, the ambiguity of decrees, and the immense variety of individual situations. Since, the party and the state during the thirties, decided to deal with every issue related to the Jews in the most minute detail, and, in particular, to resolve each case of legal or administrative exception, the entire policy might have ground to a halt as a result of the very complexity of the task. That this did not happen is possibly the most telling proof of the relentless obstinacy of the anti-Jewish effort, a kind of determination that mere bureaucratic routine alone could not have mobilized.
It is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the attitudes of ordinary Germans toward the increasingly more miserable Jews living in their midst in the spring of 1939. As we saw from the SOPADE report about the populace’s responses to the group of Jews being sent back and forth over the western border during those weeks, hatred and sympathy were mixed, possibly according to differences in age. One obtains the same mixed impression from memoirs, such as those of Valentin Senger, a Jew who survived the Nazi period in Frankfurt,46 or from Klemperer’s diaries. There is no doubt that, at least in smaller towns and villages, some people were still patronizing Jewish stores, although in principle no Jewish business (unless it was an exporter or belonged to foreign Jews) was allowed to function after January 1, 1939. How else to explain the confidential report addressed on February 6 by the Bernburg district party leadership to its counterpart in Rosenheim, regarding “lists of clients of Jewish stores in the Bernburg district”? The report not only gives the list of “verified customers of Jews” but also indicates the store owners’ names and the dates of the purchases and amounts paid.47
On May 5, 1939, the Fischbach police station informed the Labor Office in Augsburg of its attempt to send three men of a local Levi family (Manfred Israel, Sigbert Israel, and Leo Israel) to compulsory work at the Hartmann brick factory in Gebelbach. Whereas Manfred Levi was in Altona (a suburb of Hamburg) attending a Zionist professional training school to prepare for his emigration to Palestine, Sigbert and Leo’s German employers had come to the police station to request permission to retain the services of their Jewish carpenter and gardener.48
Gestapo surveillance of the churches reveals the same mixed attitudes. Thus, in January 1939, at a meeting of the Evangelical Church in Ansbach, one Knorr-Köslin, a physician, declared that in present-day Germany the sentence “all salvation comes from the Jews” should be deleted from the Bible; the report indicates that Knorr-Köslin’s outburst caused a protest from the audience; the protest might have been only on purely religious grounds.49 When, on the other hand, Pastor Schilffarth of Streitberg declared that “after baptism, Jews become Christians,” one of his young students retorted (“in a strong and well-deserved way,” says the report), “But Pastor, even if you pour six pails of water on a Jew’s head, he still remains a Jew.”50
In small towns some municipal officials avoided the mandatory forms of addressing Jews. When, in early 1939, the town officials of Goslar negotiated with the head of the local Jewish community for the acquisition of the synagogue building, their letters were addressed “Herrn Kaufmann W. Heilbrunn” (Mr. W. Heilbrunn, merchant), without using the obligatory “Israel.”51
And yet…In a December 1938 diary entry, Victor Klemperer told of a policeman who in the past had been friendly to him, even encouraging. When he encountered him that month, in the municipal office of the small town where the Klemperers owned a country house, the same policeman passed by him “looking fixedly ahead, as distant as could be. In his behavior,” Klemperer commented, “the man probably represents 79 million Germans.”52
Looking back over the first six years of the regime, this much can be said with a measure of certainty: German society as a whole did not oppose the regime’s anti-Jewish initiatives. Hitler’s identification with the anti-Jewish drive, along with the populace’s awareness that on this issue the Nazis were determined to push ahead, may have reinforced the inertia or perhaps the passive complicity of the vast majority about a matter that most, in any event, considered peripheral to their main interests. It has been seen that economic and religious interests triggered some measure of dissent, mainly among the peasantry and among Catholics and members of the Confessing Church. Such dissent did not, however, except in some individual instances, lead to open questioning of the policies. Yet, during the thirties, the German population, the great majority of which espoused traditional anti-Semitism in one form or another, did not demand anti-Jewish measures, nor did it clamor for their most extreme implementation. Among most “ordinary Germans” there was acquiescence regarding the segregation and dismissal from civil and public service of the Jews; there were individual initiatives to benefit from their expropriation; and there was some glee in witnessing their degradation. But outside party ranks, there was no massive popular agitation to expel them from Germany or to unleash violence against them. The majority of Germans accepted the steps taken by the regime and, like Klemperer’s policeman, looked the other way.53
From within the party ranks hatred flowed in an ever more brutal and open way. Sometimes, as with anonymous informers, it is not known whether it originated in the party or among unaffiliated citizens. In any case, denunciations reached such proportions on the eve of the war that Frick, on orders from Göring, had to intervene, addressing a January 10, 1939, letter to the whole array of civilian and police authorities.
Marked CONFIDENTIAL, Frick’s letter tersely indicated his subject: “The Jewish Question and Denunciations.” It related that—on the occasion of a conference with Göring regarding the necessity of eliminating the Jews from the German economy and of using their assets for the goals of the Four-Year Plan—the Generalfeldmarschall had mentioned “that it had been recently noticed that German Volksgenossen were being denounced because they had once bought in Jewish shops, inhabited Jewish houses, or had some other business relations with Jews.” Göring considered that a very unpleasant development, which, in his opinion, could hurt the realization of the Four-Year Plan: “The GeneralFeldmarschall wishes therefore that everything be done to put an end to this nuisance.”54
Frick’s order probably did not reach party member Sagel of Frankfurt. On January 14, 1939, a grocer named Karl Schué complained to his local group leader that female party member Sagel had berated him for having sold butter to a Jew (the last one, wrote Schué, “who still buys his butter in my store”) and told him that she had informed the local [party] leader accordingly. Schué used the occasion to unfold the tale of his economic woes as a the owner of a small store and then returned to Sagel: “Maybe you could inform female Party Comrade Sagel that I do not wear any uniform, as she told me that I should take off my uniform. It is really sad,” he concluded, “that even today, in Greater Germany, such incidents could occur, instead of help being provided to a struggling businessman to allow him to get on his feet and spare his family serious worry.”55
It could be that denunciations were forbidden only when they concerned events in the distant past. Recent occurrences were another matter. On Sunday, June 25, 1939, Fridolin Billian, a local party cell leader and teacher in Theilheim, in the Schweinfurt district of Main-Franken, reported to the local police station that a sixteen-year-old Jew, Erich Israel Oberdorfer, a horse dealer’s son, had perpetrated indecent acts on Gunda Rottenberger, a workingman’s ten-year-old daughter. The story had been told to him by Gunda’s mother, supposedly because Gunda had admitted that Erich Oberdorfer had lured her to the stable and told her that she would get five Pfennig if she took off her underpants. Oberdorfer denied the accusation; Gunda herself said that he had made the offer, but that nothing happened when she refused, except that they had eaten cherries in the stable and, in order to explain their prolonged absence from home, decided to tell Gunda’s mother they had been counting the hens.56
After the Theilheim police proved unable to obtain confirmation of a sexual misdeed from Gunda Rottenberger herself, the Gestapo took over and produced one Maria Ums, who readily admitted that some years (she could not remember how many) earlier, Erich, who was her own age, had touched her genitals and even inserted his member into her “sexual parts.” Then a certain Josef Schäfner came forward. He remembered that Siegfried Oberdorfer, Erich’s father, had told him that during the war he had hit a lieutenant with his pistol butt (because the lieutenant had called him a dirty Jew) and killed him. Siegfried Oberdorfer denied it all; according to him, it was a tale invented by Schäfner, who spread it in the local inns when he was drunk.57
The hearings in young Erich Oberdorfer’s case were over by 1940: He was sentenced to one year in prison. In 1941, on his release from the Schweinfurt jail, he was sent to Buchenwald as a race defiler.58 His dossier was closed and his short life, too, possibly reached its end.
In April 1939 the Ministry of Religious Affairs reached an agreement with the Evangelical Church Leaders’ Conference on further relations between the Protestant churches and the state. The agreement was strongly influenced by German-Christian ideology, but nonetheless not opposed, at least not formally, by a majority of German pastors; the Godesberg Declaration of the same month gave its full weight to this new statement.
“What is the relation between Judaism and Christianity?” it asked. “Is Christianity derived from Judaism and has therefore become its continuation and completion, or does Christianity stand in opposition to Judaism? We answer: Christianity is in irreconcilable opposition to Judaism.”59
A few weeks later, the signatories of the Godesberg Declaration met at the Wartburg near Eisenach, a site sacred to the memory of Luther and hallowed by its connection with the German student fraternities, to inaugurate the Institute for Research on Jewish Influence on the Life of the German Church. According to a historian of the German churches, “a surprisingly large number of academics put themselves at the disposal of the institute, which issued numerous thick volumes of proceedings and prepared a revised version of the New Testament (published in an edition of 200,000 copies in early 1941). It omitted terms such as “Jehovah,” “Israel,” “Zion,” and “Jerusalem” which were considered to be Jewish.60
Cleansing Christianity of its Jewish elements was a Sisyphean task indeed. Just at the time of the Godesberg Declaration, when the Eisenach Institute was being set up, an urgent query was addressed to the SD by the party’s Education Office: could it be that Philipp Melanchthon, possibly the most important German figure of the Reformation after Martin Luther himself, was of non-Aryan origin? The Education Office had discovered this piece of unwelcome news in a book by one Hans Wolfgang Mager, in which, on, the author stated: “Luther’s closest collaborator and confidant, Philipp Melanchthon, was a Jew!” The SD answered that it could not deal with this kind of investigation; the Reich Office for Ancestry Research would possibly be the right address.61
Whether or not Melanchthon’s case underwent further scrutiny, it seems that the great reformer was not excluded from the fold. It was easier to eliminate lesser servants of the church, such as pastors and the faithful of Jewish origin. On February 10, 1939, the Evangelical Church of Thuringia forbade its own baptized Jews access to its temples. Twelve days later the Saxon Evangelical Church followed suit; the ban then spread to the churches of Anhalt, Mecklenburg, and Lübeck. In the early summer, all pastors of non-Aryan ancestry were dismissed. The letter sent on July 11, 1939, to Pastor Max Weber of Neckarsteinach in Hesse-Nassau by the president of the Land Church Office used a standard formula: “The mandate you received on January 10, 1936—No. 941—to administer the parish of Neckarsteinach, under condition of a possible cancellation at any time, is hereby revoked; you are dismissed from your position as of the end of July this year. The director of the German Evangelical Church Office has ordered on May 13, 1939—K.K. 420/39—that the provisions of the German Civil Service Law of January 26, 1937 [excluding all Mischlinge from the civil service], be administratively applied to all clergymen and employees of the Church. According to the provisions of the German Civil Service Law, only a person of German or related blood can be a civil servant (see para. 25). As you are a Mischling of the second degree [one Jewish grandparent], not of German or related blood and thereby according to the meaning of the German Civil Service Law cannot be a clergyman or remain one, your dismissal has had to be declared.”62
The Eisenach Institute dealt with Jews and traces of Judaism in Christianity; the project to establish a research institute on Jewish affairs in Frankfurt, on the other hand, was concerned with the comprehensive task of submitting all matters Jewish to scientific Nazi scrutiny. The existence of a large research library on Jewish affairs at the University of Frankfurt, along with the rift between Walter Frank and Wilhelm Grau—which led to Grau’s dismissal from his position as director of the Jewish section of the Institute for the History of the New Germany—enabled the mayor of Frankfurt, Fritz Krebs, to suggest, in the fall of 1938, that the new institute be set up, with Grau as its director.63 The minister of education and Hess approved the project and preparations began: The festive opening was to take place two years later, in 1941.
Goebbels was also active in this effort to identify non-Aryans in the various cultural areas—and in the purges that followed. Since 1936, the Propaganda Ministry had been compiling and publishing lists of Jewish, mixed, and Jewish-related figures active in cultural endeavors64 and prohibiting their membership in non-Jewish organizations and the exhibition, publication, and performance of their works. But Goebbels evidently felt that he had not yet achieved total control. Thus, throughout 1938 and early 1939, the propaganda minister harassed the heads of the various Reich chambers to obtain updated and complete lists of Jews who had been excluded from pursuing their professions.65 One list after another was sent to the Ministry of Propaganda with the admission that it was still incomplete. (A sample of one such, sent by the Reich Music Chamber on February 25, 1939: “Ziegler, Nora, piano teacher; Ziffer, Margarete, private music teacher; Zimbler, Ferdinand, conductor; Zimmermann, Artur, pianist; Zimmermann, Heinrich, clarinetist; Zinkower, Alfons, pianist; Zippert, Helene, music teacher;…Zwillenberg, Wilhelm, choir conductor.”)66
The Rosenberg files contain similar lists. One document contains part 6 of a list of Jewish authors—those with names beginning with the letters S through V—including three Sacher-Masochs and six Salingers, followed by Salingré and Salkind, and ending with Malea Vyne, who, according to the compiler, is the same person as Malwine Mauthner.67
In the fall of 1938, when Tannenhof, an institution for mentally ill patients (belonging to the Evangelical Kaiserswerth Association) was formulating its new statutes, the board decided that they “must take into account the changed attitude of the German Volk to the race question by excluding the admission of patients of Jewish origin…. The institution’s administration is instructed that from now on it should not admit patients of Jewish origin and…with the aim of freeing itself as soon as possible of such patients…it should give notice to private patients of Jewish origin at the earliest possible date and, in the case of regular patients [of Jewish origin], should ask the district administration to transfer them to another institution.”68
Other Evangelical institutions had already started practicing such selection several months earlier. Thus, on March 7, 1938, Dr. Oscar Epha, director of the Evangelical Inner Mission in Schleswig-Holstein, wrote to Pastor Lensch in Alsterdorf: “I have informed the Hamburg public welfare authorities that we can no longer take in any Jewish patients, and we have asked [them] to transfer to Hamburg the four Jewish patients we still have.”69 The Inner Mission’s initiative thus preceded the Interior Ministry decree of June 22, 1938, according to which “the accommodation of Jews in medical institutions is to be executed in such a way that the danger of race defilement is avoided. Jews must be accommodated in special rooms.”70 How this decree was to be carried out was not always clear: “We ask you to inform us,” the hospital administration in Offenburg wrote to its sister institution in Singen on December 29, 1938, “whether you accept Jews and, in case you do, whether you put them together with Aryan patients or whether special rooms are kept ready for them.” The Singen colleagues answered promptly: “As there is no Jewish hospital in this region, and as to this day we have not received any instructions in this matter, we cannot refuse to accept Jewish emergency patients. But, as there are only a few of them, we accommodate the Jewish patients separately.”71 In the Hamburg area, on the other hand, the instructions from the Health Office were unambiguous: “Because of the danger of race defilement, special attention should be devoted to the accommodation of Jews in institutions for the sick. They must be separated spatially from patients of German or related blood. Insofar as Jews who are not bedridden have to remain in institutions for the sick, their accommodation and arrangements regarding their movements inside or on the grounds must make certain to exclude any danger of race defilement…. I therefore demand that this danger be prevented under all circumstances.”72"
Dead Jews were no less troublesome than sick ones. On March 17, 1939, the Saxon office of the German Association of Municipalities wrote to the head office in Berlin that, since the Jews had their own cemetery nearby, the mayor of Plauen intended to forbid the burial or cremation of racial Jews in the municipal cemetery.73 The letter writer wanted to be assured of the legality of this decision, which was obviously directed against converted Jews or those who had simply left their religious community. In his answer two months later, Bernhard Lösener wrote that “the burial of Jews can be forbidden in a municipal cemetery when there is a Jewish cemetery in the same district. The definition of a Jew has been established by the Nuremberg Laws and is also applicable to converted Jews…. The owner of the Jewish cemetery is not allowed to forbid the burial of a converted Jew.” Lösener also informed the Association of Municipalities that a cemetery law was in preparation. Whether access to a municipal cemetery could be refused to Jews who had already acquired graves there or who wished to take care of the tombs of deceased relatives was, according to Lösener, still under consideration.74
The Polish crisis had unfolded throughout the spring and summer of 1939. This time, however, the German demands were met by an adamant Polish stand and, after the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, by new British resolve. On March 17, in Birmingham, Chamberlain publicly vowed that his government would not allow any further German conquests. On March 31 Great Britain guaranteed the borders of Poland, as well as those of a series of other European countries. On April 11 Hitler gave orders to the Wehrmacht to be ready for “Operation White,” the code name for the attack on Poland.
On May 22, Germany and Italy signed a defense treaty, the Steel Pact. Simultaneously, while Great Britain and France were conducting hesitant and noncommittal negotiations with the Soviet Union, Hitler made an astounding political move and opened negotiations of his own with Stalin. The Soviet dictator had subtly indicated his readiness for a deal with Nazi Germany in a speech in early March and by a symbolic act: on May 2, he dismissed Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov. Litvinov had been the apostle of collective security—that is, of a common front against Nazism. Moreover, he was a Jew.
The German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was signed on August 23; an attached secret protocol divided a great part of Eastern Europe into areas to be eventually occupied and controlled by the two countries in case of war. Hitler was now convinced that, as a result of this coup, Great Britain and France would be deterred from any military intervention. On September 1, the German attack on Poland started. After some hesitation the two democracies decided to stand by their ally, and on September 3, France and Great Britain were at war with Germany. World War II had begun.
In the meantime other events were occurring in Hitler’s Reich. Soon after the handicapped Knauer baby had been put to death in Leipzig, Hitler instructed his personal physician, Karl Brandt (who had performed the euthanasia), and the head of his personal chancellery, Philipp Bouhler, to see to the identification of infants born with a variety of physical and mental defects. These preparations were undertaken, in the strictest secrecy, during the spring of 1939. On August 18, doctors and midwives were ordered to report any infants born with the defects that had been listed by a committee of three medical experts from the Reich Committee for Hereditary Health Questions. These infants were to die.75
Another initiative was taken at the same time; it was, as we have seen, one about which religious authorities at first kept prudent silence. Sometime prior to July 1939, in the presence of Bormann and Lammers, Hitler instructed State Secretary Leonardo Conti to begin preparations for adult euthanasia. Brandt and Bouhler quickly succeeded in getting Conti out of the way and, with Hitler’s assent, took over the entire killing program. Both the mass murder of handicapped children and of mentally ill adults had been decided upon by Hitler, and both operations were directed under cover of the Führer’s Chancellery.76
None of this could yet have had any impact on the popular fervor surrounding Hitler or on the public’s ardent adherence to many of the regime’s goals. Hitler’s accession to power would be remembered by a majority of Germans as the beginning of a period of “good times.” The chronology of persecution, segregation, emigration, and expulsion, the sequence of humiliations and violence, of loss and bereavement that molded the memories of the Jews of Germany from 1933 to 1939 was not what impressed itself on the consciousness and memory of German society as a whole. “People experienced the breakneck speed of the economic and foreign resurgence of Germany as a sort of frenzy—as the common expression has it,” writes German historian Norbert Frei. “With astonishing rapidity, many identified themselves with the social will to construct a Volksgemeinschaft that kept any thoughtful or critical stance at arm’s length…. They were beguiled by the esthetics of the Nuremberg rallies and enraptured by the victories of German athletes at the Berlin Olympic Games. Hitler’s achievements in foreign affairs triggered storms of enthusiasm…. In the brief moments left between the demands of a profession and those of the ever-growing jungle of Nazi organizations, they enjoyed modest well-being and private happiness.”77
It was in this atmosphere of national elation and personal satisfaction that, on April 20, 1939, some four months before the war, eighty million Germans celebrated Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. During the following weeks hundreds of theaters showed avid audiences the pageantry and splendor of the event. Newsreel No. 451 was a huge success. Terse comments introduced the various sequences: “Preparations for the Führer’s fiftieth birthday/The entire nation expresses its gratitude and offers its wishes of happiness to the founder of the Greater German Reich/Gifts from all the Gaue of the Reich are continuously brought to the Reich Chancellery/Guests from all over the world arrive in Berlin/On the eve of the birthday, the Inspector General for the Construction of the Capital of the Reich, Albert Speer, presents to the Führer the completed East-West Axis/The great star of the newly erected victory column shines/Slovak Premier Dr. Josef Tiso, President of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia Emil Hacha, and the Reich Protector Freiherr von Neurath…/The troops prepare for the parade/The Third Reich’s greatest military spectacle begins/For four and a half hours, formations from all branches of the armed forces march by their Supreme Commander…!”78
Resuming its activities—briefly curtailed after the November 1938 pogrom—early in the year on orders from above, the Kulturbund in its Berlin theater that April staged People at Sea, a drama by English writer J. B. Priestley. An American correspondent, Louis P. Lochner of the Associated Press, covered the April 13 opening: “Because…the British playwright has renounced all claims to royalties from German Jews, the Jewish Kulturbund was able tonight to present a beautiful premiere rendition in German of Men at Sea [sic]. The translation was by Leo Hirsch, the stage setting by Fritz Wisten. Almost 500 attentive, art-loving Jews witnessed the performance and applauded generously. Outranking all others in the depth of her emotional acting was Jenny Bernstein as Diana Lissmore. Alfred Berliner, with his face made up to look much like Albert Einstein’s, also scored signally with his interpretation of the role of Professor Pawlet. The audience wistfully nodded when Fritz Grünne as Carlo Velburg complained again and again that he had no passport. Thirty-nine performances of the Priestley play are planned for the coming weeks.”79
The play tells of the terrors and hopes of twelve people on a ship in the Caribbean disabled by fire, adrift, and in danger of sinking. The characters depicted on the stage are saved at the end. Most of the Jews seated in the Kommandantenstrasse theater that night were doomed.